The Highs and Lows of Green Certifications

Editor’s note: For additional information on green certifications and labeling, check out “Labeling for Legitimacy: Certifications for Natural and Organic Personal Care” by Darrin C. Duber-Smith.

  • Beauty brands that position themselves as “natural” can opt for an alphabet soup of available green certifications. However, the bottom line is that certification should help the brand’s marketability.
  • Certifications such as the USDA NOP certification, while a well-known organic industry standard, can be problematic as they weren’t developed with the beauty industry in mind and often require expensive manufacturing restructuring and upgrading.

The need to differentiate one product from another predates the organic and natural movement in the beauty industry. But during the last two decades, consumers have been inundated by an alphabet soup of green, organic and natural standards. Although the path to certification can be very different in dealing with multiple standards, the ultimate goal is the same—solidifying your brand as more natural than the rest.

What’s Best

When choosing which standard is best suited for your brand, it comes down to one simple fact: the value of any and all certification is marketability. Designing a product using natural ingredients, avoiding hot button problematic ingredients and utilizing a generally favorable ingredient profile is a noble cause, and, in many cases, sales will do just fine. But often the question arises, “What will a certification add to the value of the brand?”

And it is simple—the more heavily marketed the standard is, the more it will add value to your brand. So far, most natural and organic standards have been beyond reproach due to their well-written nature. So choosing the “wrong” standard based on lack of strictness is relatively unheard of. However, there are multiple options that beauty brands pursue in green certifications.

Setting Standards

Touching on a few standards I have been intimately involved with, I can offer a firsthand perspective.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (USDA NOP) is what many consider to be the pinnacle of any green/organic standard. This is likely due to it being the most heavily recognized and branded of any standard—and not because it is suited and designed for personal care. Using USDA-certified organic ingredients in place of conventional ingredients will generally increase a product’s stature, but, in some cases, turning your product into a full USDA organic certified product is a challenge due to the many limitations of this standard and applying it to produce a quality, stable product meant for retail.

A product that is allowed to carry the USDA seal of an organic product has at least 95% of its solids derived from organic ingredients, excluding water and salt. The certification process also involves a detailed label and formula review, as well as ensuring the product is made in a USDA organic certified facility. The certification process for a USDA facility involves many policies and procedures to comply with the complex tracking systems required by the USDA, and, in many cases, manufacturers must weigh if certification is a viable equity to their facility, as it can be very costly to upgrade to the necessary standards.

The NSF International organic certification is another green certification standard that has seen recent success, and typically is more feasible for the production of a functional and stable product. This standard saw most of its success when, in 2010, Whole Foods enforced that personal care products sold on its shelves and making a “contains organic ingredients” claim must be certified to the NSF 305 ANSI Standard for Organic Personal Care products, a consensus-based industry standard accepted by the American National Standards Institute and managed by NSF International. (Whole Foods’ guidelines also state “all products making an ‘organic’ product claim must be certified to the USDA NOP standard, the same standard to which organic food must be certified under U.S. law.”)

The fascinating part of the NSF International standard is its approval approach. Rather than have a fixed list of acceptable ingredients to work with, this standard has an acceptable list of processes of how these ingredients are made—i.e. you can have two ingredients from the same source and within the same end product but one could be approved and the other not simply due to its allowable process.

With this standard, certain original ingredients such as sulfate-based surfactants became allowable over newer, novel surfactants because the process to make the original surfactant was far more natural than some newer ones. However, the success of the NSF certification is not all in its originality. It is far more marketed and recognized than many other standards of its caliber thanks to its retail support.

The GMO Debate

Another growing area of the green movement is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMO awareness has gained momentum in recent years, partially due to the narrow loss of California Proposition 37—a statute voted down in November 2012 that would have required labeling of genetically engineered food, with exceptions. It also would have disallowed the practice of labeling genetically engineered food with the word “natural.”

GMO verification in beauty products relies on simply not using feedstock from plants that have been genetically modified or crossbred with other species in the product’s ingredients. Although no clear difference has ever been substantiated between an ingredient derived from non-GMO ingredients versus ingredients derived from GMOs, this standard has become increasingly popular due to widespread awareness of GMO foods.

During the non-GMO verification process, beauty brand owners need to assess both the ingredients used in their products and the ingredients of an ingredient—leading all the way back to the source material—in order to do a proper audit. In some cases, this can be a difficult task, as source material suppliers can be closely guarded or can change often enough for them to be difficult to track.

Weighing Your Options

Overall, beauty brand owners will continue to find new ways to differentiate themselves from all other product lines. The use of green-certified standards has been an invaluable tool to verify and lend definition to natural products, but many barriers remain to certification. These barriers include cost, recognizability of the certification standard and the formulation constrains of using a green certification standard that may not have a wide selection of cosmetic ingredients or ingredient synthesis processes available yet.

Brand owners must carefully weigh their choices to make sure that adhering to any green certification standard will be giving their brand the advantages and positioning that they are looking for without hurting overall quality.

Dr. Sundeep Gill has been involved with the beauty and cosmetic industry for many years, first working for Carme Cosmetics in Novato, California, in 1987, where he started out in the quality control lab. He soon worked his way up to a research chemist, and in this position, he learned the possibilities of creating natural products based on science-driven ingredients. A few years later Sun Deep Cosmetics opened its first manufacturing plant in Hayward, California. Here Dr. Gill was able to put his creative skills into motion, developing popular personal care products in the natural products industry. Dr. Gill attended the University of the Pacific, where he attained his bachelors degree and ultimately his doctor of pharmacy degree. Soon after, he completed an internship and residency at Stanford University Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and the Veterans Hospital. Through this work Dr. Gill published several articles on pharmacotherapy and drug delivery and assisted in several clinical studies involving topical drug delivery and chemotherapy. Dr. Gill is a registered pharmacist and still practices as a clinical pharmacologist when he is not working as a personal care research chemist. And an avid educator, Dr. Gill still preceptors to doctor of pharmacy candidates around the country. He currently lives in San Ramon, California, with his wife and three daughters.

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